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Likud MK says Ra’am could join coalition; Netanyahu disavows comments

Likud immediately dismisses Amsalem’s remarks as ‘contrary to the position’ of opposition leader; Religious Zionism also says it won’t sit with the Islamist party

Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas, left, holds a press conference at the Knesset, October 25, 2021; Opposition head and Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu, right, leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, October 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas, left, holds a press conference at the Knesset, October 25, 2021; Opposition head and Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu, right, leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, October 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A key ally of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the Ra’am party led by Mansour Abbas would be welcome to join a potential Likud-led coalition, so long as the government would still have a majority without Ra’am’s support — comments that were quickly disavowed by Netanyahu and the Likud party.

“Anti-Zionist parties cannot be part of the government for as long as the government does not [have a majority of seats],” Likud MK David Amsalem told Channel 12 news.

His comments came with new elections looming, after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his coalition partners moved to disperse the Knesset.

“If Mansour Abbas wants to join after we have 61 [seats], then welcome,” Amsalem said, using an Arabic phrase. “But we cannot rely on him [for a governing majority]. The Jews currently cannot rely on an anti-Zionist party.”

“We said it all the time. A government should have a Zionist majority. After we have a Zionist majority, if anyone else wants to [join], I have no problem with that,” he added. “We have never had a problem cooperating with the Arab parties on civic issues, but when we rely on them on national issues we lose our Jewish identity.”

Shortly after the interview aired, the Likud party issued a statement saying: “The remarks were made contrary to the position, and are not the opinion, of former prime minister Netanyahu. Netanyahu has never agreed and will never agree to include Ra’am in his coalition.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) talks with then-coalition chairman MK David Amsalem during a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset on November 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, Bezalel Smotrich, said his party “will not sit in a coalition with terror supporters. Period.”

Amsalem then issued a statement in which he walked back his earlier comments.

“We intend to establish a national government that will promote the values of Judaism and Zionism, and will advance legislation and carry out extensive and desirable reforms in the judicial system. We will form a government of 61 only with the parties of the right-wing bloc!” the statement read.

Netanyahu dismissed Amsalem’s comments as representing “his opinion only.”

“Ra’am is an antisemitic, anti-Zionist party that supports terrorism and represents the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu falsely claimed. “The Likud under my leadership has never agreed and will never agree to include Ra’am in any coalition.”

Likud and its right-wing allies have repeatedly claimed that the Islamist Ra’am supports terror. Ra’am represents the Southern Branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, which is considered moderate, as opposed to the movement’s more extremist Northern Branch. Abbas has on multiple occasions strongly condemned terrorism and has also said Israel has been and will remain a Jewish state.

Despite Likud’s public protests, Abbas says Netanyahu courted him for his own coalition-building efforts last year.

Earlier this month, Abbas said he would not rule out sitting in a future government with Netanyahu, and that he would be willing to join a coalition with far-right MKs Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir of Religious Zionism, as long as they did not reject him.

The pair’s refusal to join a government propped up by Ra’am is believed to have been the deciding factor that blocked Netanyahu from forming a government with Abbas after the elections last March, leading to the emergence of the current ruling coalition.

Amsalem is a controversial and outspoken lawmaker who earlier this month spoke of breaking the bones of the Israeli left when Likud returns to power. “After we crush the bones of the left, we will explain to them that we know how to run this country a little bit better,” Amsalem said in a Kan Radio interview, later stating that he was referring to activities in the political sphere — “in Knesset committees, the plenum” and so on.

MK’s Bezalel Smotrich (L) and Itamar Ben Gvir (C) at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City on October 20, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in an interview broadcast Saturday that a government should not depend on “extremes,” like Smotrich and Ben Gvir, or Ra’am, but that they should not be ruled out.

“Would a government that depends on Ben Gvir and Smotrich be good for Israel? No. I’m not saying they’re barred, but the government cannot be dependent on them,” Bennett said. “This year proved it’s not good to be dependent on the extremes.”

“I want a coalition spanning from Ben Gvir to Mansour Abbas. That might sound like fiction,” he said. “The whole culture of ‘invalidation’ has to go.”

Polls have predicted deadlock after elections, with neither Netanyahu’s bloc or the parties in Bennett’s coalition able to cobble together a majority government, without any changes in political alliances. All surveys have found both sides falling below the needed 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, with the Arab majority Joint List faction, which is not aligned with either side, holding the balance of power. The eight parties forming the current government will not necessarily remain united following their fractious coalition experience, though.

Bennett, who ran on an anti-Netanyahu platform in the 2021 elections, insisted Friday that his predecessor is unsuited to once again hold the premiership, but clarified that he would not rule out sitting in a future government headed by the Likud leader.

Israel’s political landscape is set to shift in the coming week, with the Knesset expected to pass the final legislation for its dispersal on Monday and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to become prime minister soon after.

Bennett and Lapid last week announced their decision to dissolve the 24th Knesset after just one year in power due to their inability to keep their narrow, politically diverse coalition together any longer. If all goes as planned, Israel will head to its fifth national election in under four years in the fall.

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